We only spent the one night in Agra, and were headed from Uttar Pradesh state into Rajasthan that same day, with one final stop about an hour out of town at Fatehpur Sikri, another World Heritage Site, that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. Here, we avoided a guide, allowing the children to run amuck instead, playing hide and seek through the fortified ancient city, and discovering our own beautiful details to stop and admire.
By the time we were on the road again for our final leg, the skies were darkening. This would be our first and only drive at night, or “tempting of the fates”. Dan was in the front passenger seat, waiting for drivers to begin using their car lights, only to realize that most cars had broken brake lights, and only seemed to operate high beams in the front. We were on a very poor, half dirt road, half potholed country highway that seemed to be a major truck thoroughfare. Everytime our driver, Viru, had to swerve out of the way of oncoming travel (usually overtaking another car and in our lane with head beams blaring), there was a fear that we might hit livestock in the blackness of the shoulder, or fall into a ditch.
Safe and sound, and only slightly jarred, we made it to our first Rajasthan stop, Ranthambore. This is where we boarded a canter, which is a large vehicle made for off-roading, similar to a jeep, only the size of small bus. It can accommodate about twenty people in high, open-roof seating. What I initially appreciated about the journey was being in a park free from trash, that gave me a glimpse of what open forest land had once looked like in this part of India. This park used to be part of the majaraja’s hunting grounds. We saw macaques, langurs, Indian gazelles, chital, wild boars, peacocks, crocodiles, large antlered sambar deers, but no tigers. A disappointment, but one I was willing to accept at $75 a pop for a 3 hour safari (family cost). Dan and Gabriel prodded that we try our luck again in the late evening, and convinced me that the gamble was worth it. Thanks to our guide’s good eyes, he spotted the tiger laying in the grass by a small lake and popular hunting ground. We were able to ease up within 50 feet, and soon found many canters and jeeps joining us for this rare sighting. Our Bengal tiger woke and yawned, surrounded by the prying eyes of tourists and musical clicks of cameras. She was an irresistible sight of strength and beauty, which couldn’t be bothered less by her star attention. We must have stayed there for over a half hour, watching each muscle movement, until eventually she rose, tail curling behind her, and slowly sauntered away into the brush. Within minutes another tiger was spotted in the far distance of the lake, slowly stocking a team of boars and herd of deer. The wild boars quickly caught a whiff of this tiger’s scent and fled in a fast line. The deer were very still, until they decided on their best escape path and cautiously dispersed. With our Jungle Book moment over we returned to the sweet Vatika Resort, grateful for our rare glimpse of the elusive Bengal tiger.
With Stella and Gabriel still enthusiastically interested in animals, our next stop on the way to Jaipur had to be the Monkey Temple, with images of Hanuman an integral part. Here we experienced our first Hindi blessing within the tiny shrine room of a local priest. He anointed our third eye with an orange saffron paste, and adorned our wrists with a red and yellow bracelet of string, then asked for a donation, which did not feel particularly holy, but seems to be the norm. The Monkey temple was a series of decrepit buildings, once beautifully painted with scenes of Indian life, and a couple green pools of water, housed by a temple, which seemed to be the main focal point for getting close to the monkeys and for locals to make offerings and pray. We tried to keep our distance, as many of these monkeys can be quite aggressive, and we watched them wrestle with one another in jest and earnestness. The children were especially excited to see all the baby monkeys that were clinging to their mamas. Little did we know that the sight of monkeys would soon become an everyday occurrence.